August 13:
Insights Provided By A Council Member.

I had a very interesting conversation with Councilperson Gary Welch today (see overview here) that provided a rather frightening and disheartening window into the remarkable level of isolation and groupthink that has infected our City officials. A conversation that illuminated the nearly cultish deference to the Ankeny City Manager that virtually turns him into a dictator who answers to no one. Allowing him to run the City of Ankeny as basically a puppet government without regard to public service, common sense, or, in this case, even the truth.

I know those are strong, offensive, outrageous words. They infuriate me as well, and I am shocked and offended to find such a thing festering at the core of the city I love -- the place I moved to 20-some years ago to raise my kids. But we now have some insight as to HOW that works.

The fact is – as we already knew – the Ankeny City Council has freely subrogated their elected power to the Ankeny City Manager to decide the agenda (direction, policies, and what will be considered), totally and without serious oversight. What I learned in my conversation with Councilperson Welch, however, is what gives his office absolute power – they further look to the City Manager's office as the sole source of any information that they consider reliable enough to consider when making their decisions. Which means the City Manager tells the Council what the issues are, what they are going to believe about it, and, by extension, how they are going to vote. Which is always 5 – 0 in his favor when he follows that process. Even to the point of letting him become the only City Manager with a lucrative, virtually lifetime contract in the area while all the others, including Des Moines, serve at the will of the Council, as noted below.

Because they have come to trust him, and anything he tells them, implicitly. More than implicitly, actually.

And, at least on the issue of my Christmas display, what City Hall tells them doesn’t have to be even remotely honest for them to accept it with a level of blind faith bordering on religious fervor. Seriously, Councilperson Welch said he had never visited this Web site. (Remarkable in itself since he has some very strong opinions on the issue.) Yet talking to him was nearly as surreal as when you try to reason with someone in a religious cult, programmed to dismiss anything that conflicts with what their leaders have told them.

He was unaware that the City was maintaining their absolutely insane level of hostility towards my lights in the face of only ONE neighbor complaint (and that directed at a visitor, not me) during all of last year. He agreed that it would be unfair if the City were applying this code only to my lights. Yet he dismissed the City’s own standing orders to police with only our name on it that virtually proves that is the case because he had never seen that document. (Therefore rendering my point moot.)

He acknowledged that I did not ask for a special exemption from the code, as every City official knows quite well. But he dismissed the idea that the Police Chief lied and claimed exactly that on TV -- a violation of ethics and the public trust that would get you fired in industry or any other town. Which I take means he hadn't seen the story, therefore rendering that possibility moot as well.

I know I got through to him at some level because he said I was “very good at it” (communicating). But in the end he stiffened up and did exactly what City Hall told him to do – dismiss it all on the basis of my occupation (advertising). Meaning that he can ignore any concerned citizens on the issue, because City Hall has told him their concern isn’t real. It's just sentiment and news coverage I have unfairly whipped up. (Never mind that I’ve never contacted a news reporter yet; they have all called me.)

And he can dismiss any rational, reasonable, compelling points I might make myself on the basis that I’m a good communicator. No need to even consider the actual points or review the documentation. In fact, if they've never actually looked at the documentation proving my points, that alone renders both the documents and the arguments irrelevant.

How does that kind of thinking get accepted by otherwise intelligent public officials? It's all about blind faith in the City Manager as the sole source of credible information.

And if nothing else seems to quell the small voice of truth and reason that may still be alive in the back of their heads, there’s always the two magical mantras out-of-control local officials use to excuse almost any illogical, unfair, or self-serving thing they do – “Public safety” and “You can’t please everyone.” Both of which I've heard mindlessly muttered often enough during the past six months to last a lifetime.

Early August 2007.
Of Ankeny And Open Meetings Laws

Let’s take Ankeny officials at their word despite considerable evidence to the contrary -- they know and follow Iowa’s open meetings laws to a “T.” If that is really the case then it is suddenly very interesting and quite noteworthy that this issue still does not show up anywhere in any minutes. Minutes that are required if even a passing comment is made when at least three of them are together at any time for any reason. Which means that, officially, Council Members have not only refused to make a decision about or even consider making a decision about it -- but the issue has not been so much as acknowledged to exist at all.

Do you buy that it’s really never come up? Me either.

Because that would meant that not even one Council member has ever so much as mentioned a word about it to another when a third was around. Not one “Did you know there is a Web site calling Ankeny ‘The City That Stole Christmas?’ Not one comment to the mayor about being on TV. Twice. Not a single mention of “that SOB that sic’ed the County Attorney on us” when the Mayor -- if he was telling the truth, which the City Manager now says he wasn't -- actually documented that they disregard Iowa’s open meetings laws. Or not one thought about the spontaneous additional TV, radio, and newspaper coverage Ankeny has received as a result. At a time when Ankeny is really not otherwise in the news, and on an issue in which irreparable damage looms only months away if they don't get over themselves and fix the problem now.

Does that really sound right to you?

But, in fact, there is actually no official record that any Ankeny City Council member is even aware of this issue. No proof that the City Manager is following the ordinance that requires him to tell Council members of citizen complaints (although I have to assume he is -- behind closed doors, I guess.) In a town where about the biggest issues the Council otherwise faces is whether to grant a builder an easement for new construction ("after an agonizing 1.7 seconds, the measure passes 5-0") and the public relations staff is otherwise perfecting the language on their next "Tree Branch Pick-up Day" news release. Pretty remarkable ... uh, let's call it "restraint," on their part, huh?

Iowa’s open meetings laws serve a very important purpose in a democracy, as spelled out very clearly in the first paragraph of Chapter 21 of the Iowa Code on open meetings, “This chapter seeks to assure, through a requirement of open meetings of governmental bodies, that the basis and rationale of governmental decisions, as well as those decisions themselves, are easily accessible to the people.”

Democracy demands that government operate in the open, with open discussions by elected officials, not secretly among themselves or by their paid designee(s) behind closed doors. And the problem with open, honest government in Ankeny goes much deeper than just my Christmas lights. Want proof?

Quick, go to Ankeny City Council minutes and tell me why the Ankeny City Council just changed the code regarding our City Manager’s employment status to allow him to be the only City Manager in the area, including Des Moines, working under a very lucrative employment contract rather than at the will of the City Council. (They actually gave him that contract illegally in 2005, but ignore that for now.)

What discussions did they have about changing that ordinance? What thoughts did they have on the advantages and disadvantages of having a City Manager under, in this case, virtually a lifetime contract? What rationale did they ultimately find so compelling … what is there about Ankeny that is so unique … what difference would be so dominate as to cause the Ankeny City Council to make a decision that flies in the face of the best practices of every other city in the area including West Des Moines, Clive, Windsor Heights, Urbandale, Altoona, Ames, and even Des Moines and make a unanimously, uncontested, undiscussed vote to give him this remarkable contract?

You’ll never know. Because having open, honest discussions with minutes that fulfill the purpose of Iowa Code Chapter 21 that "the basis and rationale ... of decisions ... are easily accessible to the people" is not how Ankeny operates. Even though every City official I’ve encountered takes great and ironically pride in claiming otherwise. (And I believe are genuine in their delusion.)

Which makes me think that the answer to what is so unique about Ankeny that it operates in the truly dysfunctional and un-American way it does is that the City Manager wasn't kidding when his defense for the obvious open meetings violation mentioned above was to describe Ankeny as virtually a puppet government run by his office. One in which the Ankeny City Council automatically turns everything over to him and his staff so that they can make the actual decisions. And then involve the City Council only when they need something passed to make their decisions legal.

Council members probably don't see it in exactly those terms. But it's exactly what the City Manager described to the County Attorney's office. And none of them took exception to it then. It's also about the only way to explain how there could not be so much as a word of discussion when voting the City Manager a code change that granted him a lucrative, "lifetime" contract. Just a quick, unanimous, affirmative vote.

In fact, if you want to ruin a scavenger hunt, tell your guests to look in past Ankeny City Council minutes and find even a split vote, let alone a defeat, of any issue recommended for passage by the City Manager.

The fact is that since there are no minutes about discussions fulfilling the purpose and requirements of Chapter 21, we are left with only two possibilities about how the City of Ankeny operates. Either the City of Ankeny is largely a puppet government run by the City Manager like he said. OR the City Council is having discussions and making decisions behind closed doors in illegal, secret meetings as defined by the law.

Which do you think it is? I suspect it's a little of both.